What Conservatives Have Forgotten about Subsidiarity and the Common Good
Reprinted from Public Discourse
There is a reason so much energy was spent over the last several centuries stopping the consolidation of government power. After ages of appalling wars, abuses of authority, and squandering of national treasure and human potential, societies came to understand through experience that centralized might—no matter the glories it promises—is a danger. Wisdom purchased by eons of hardship contributed to the Enlightenment era’s decline of absolute regimes and mercantilism, the re-embrace of classical republicanism and self-government, the rise of liberalism, the development of federalism and separated powers, and the spread of the common law tradition.
Unfortunately, such wisdom has a short half-life. We force ourselves to repeatedly relearn the lesson. In every age, some are enticed by the idea that this time success will come about if we just hand more and more power to the right people. In the twentieth century, communism and other forms of totalitarianism vowed to produce national greatness through concentrated muscle but, of course, ended in ruin. Less malign experiments with centralization, like socialism, industrial planning, technocracy, and administrative-statism, routinely failed to deliver the results promised. These arrangements meanwhile generally produced enormous costs, administrative sclerosis, preferential treatment of favored groups, and undermined tradition, pluralism, local agency, and democratic deliberation.
Until recently, the bulk of the American right cautioned the left against the dangers of centralization—pointing to the Tenth Amendment; citing the mistakes of the New Deal, Great Society, post-War British nationalization, and various scientific-management schemes; invoking Hayek’s “knowledge problem;” lauding civil society bodies, and so on. But in the last decade or so, various strands of “new right” thinking have explicitly or implicitly favored greater consolidation. Nationalism encourages our seeing culture and politics through the eyes of the central state. Neo-industrial planning exudes confidence about our ability to centrally manage key aspects of the economy. President Trump literally said of our governing system, “I alone can fix it.” Elements of post-liberalism believe peace, order, and justice can be brought about by centrally administering a particular vision of a faith tradition or natural law.
This New Centralization shares something else: the regular invocation of “the common good.” The thinking often goes this way: “We know what the common good is, and we know how to bring it about, so give us centralized authority so we can deliver.” But in at least two invaluable intellectual traditions, the common good works very differently, recommending the distribution of power.
Republicanism and the Common Good
Though enormous attention has been paid in recent years to America’s liberal roots, our framers understood that they were creating a republic. In the very first Federalist Paper, Hamilton wrote that the forthcoming series of essays would discuss “the conformity of the proposed constitution to the true principles of republican government.” Madison’s Federalist 39 is titled “The Conformity of the Plan to Republican Principles.” Across all eighty-five Federalist Papers, “republic” or “republican” appears more than 150 times.
In this republican tradition dating back millennia, self-governing citizens work together to identify the common good through deliberation and consensus. It is not foisted on a people by an “expert” central authority. Indeed, republicanism developed and evolved as a way to establish distributed sovereignty—in the people—as opposed to sovereignty in, for instance, a single monarch or church. Moreover, republicanism from ancient Rome through Montesquieu was thought to be compatible only with small communities. That is, only in a homogeneous city-state with personal bonds, common traditions, and a shared sense of the public’s needs could the common good be ascertained and realized on an ongoing basis.
It took the United States to demonstrate that republicanism could work at scale, but this was only accomplished by embracing a polycentric approach to the common good. A national government would have authority over only a small part of the common good (e.g. “ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense”); as such, it was given few enumerated powers, and its reach was limited by rights, federalism, and separated branches. State governments would take responsibility for other aspects of the common good via their expansive police powers. States would also delegate power and duty over parts of the common good to an array of local bodies (e.g., school boards, municipalities). And the constellation of civil society bodies (e.g., charities, unions, churches) would also be responsible for a share of the common good.
As Samuel Gregg has written, though natural law recognizes the common good and the state’s role in it, “natural law maintains that there are principled limits to what the state can do vis-à-vis” the moral, social, and economic order. Natural law does not delegate responsibility to the central government for all aspects of the common good; instead, it “delineates the nature of the specific common good for which the state is responsible.” Similarly, Kevin Roberts argued that federalism, a limited central state, and a robust civil society are key to our common good.
American republicanism is remarkably consonant with the Catholic principle of subsidiarity, which also articulates a polycentric approach to the common good. Indeed, we can see our structure of decentralized government as providing a framework for subsidiarity’s directions. This is particularly noteworthy because, of late, some seem to believe the Church’s teachings demand a muscular, if not dominant, central state.
But in the late nineteenth century, as the modern nation-state emerged and consolidated authority in central governments, and as giant corporations increasingly played an outsized role in public and private life, the Church began articulating a distributed approach to duty and authority in Catholic social teaching (CST). Since then, the Church has explained—often first in papal encyclicals, then codified in collections of Catholic doctrine—that centralization is precluded by a proper understanding of the place of individuals, families, voluntary associations, government bodies, and other social entities.
The common good—namely, the good of all people and the whole person—is the result of each of these various components of society doing its part; their collaboration enables individuals and society to flourish. The common good belongs to and is the responsibility of all of these entities—not just the state; “it is and remains ‘common,’ because it is indivisible and because only together is it possible to attain it.”
Indeed, CST encourages the creation of and individuals’ participation in a wide array of communities or “original expressions of social life”—families, unions, charities, voluntary associations, and more. This produces a “graduated order” of society, from individuals and families up through huge corporate and state bodies. Since the common good is dedicated to human flourishing, and since human flourishing requires engagement in a variety of associations, “the common good depends on a healthy social pluralism.” The purpose of such groups is their particular—even unique—contributions to the common good. Each “has something original to offer to the community.”
A central state certainly has duties as well. It is also an expression of cooperative action, and it too exists to ensure we thrive. So how do we know which entities ought to do what? Since the central state is likeliest to be the most powerful and best resourced, shouldn’t it be given all, or at least the lion’s share, of authority?
Subsidiarity helps us see why the answer is no.
CST’s many statements about subsidiarity can be distilled as follows: larger bodies must not assume the tasks or authorities of smaller bodies. When individuals or small communities are unable to fulfill their duties, larger entities must provide support so those entities can get back on their feet. But such support must never take away the energy, initiative, or sense of responsibility of the entity receiving support.
In the first explicit statement about subsidiarity, Pope Pius XI wrote in the 1931 Quadragesimo Anno that it is “gravely wrong” to take from individuals what they can accomplish on their own and to assign to higher-level associations what lower-level associations can do. From the start, then, there was an understanding of each entity’s inherent and protected sphere. Lest the implication be missed, CST repeatedly describes the strict limitations subsidiarity places on central governments. For instance, “The principle of subsidiarity is opposed to certain forms of centralization, bureaucratization, and welfare assistance and to the unjustified and excessive presence of the State in public mechanisms.” Saint John Paul II wrote in Centesimus Annus that an overactive “Social Assistance State” can deplete human energy and grow the state at the expense of other communities. Subsidiarity “protects people from abuses by higher-level social authority” and requires “the State to refrain from anything that would de facto restrict the existential space of the smaller essential cells of society.”
Similarly, CST repeats that central-state power must be restricted because consolidation threatens individuals and communities: “Experience shows that the denial of subsidiarity, or its limitation in the name of an alleged democratization or equality of all members of society, limits and sometimes even destroys the spirit of freedom and initiative.” Regarding smaller associations: “Their initiative, freedom and responsibility must not be supplanted.” Pope Benedict XVI wrote in Caritas in Veritate that a sense of solidarity absent subsidiarity can lead to “paternalist social assistance that is demeaning to those in need.”
Support without Supplanting
Nevertheless, some may try to enlarge the power of the state by arguing that under CST, one, the government does have a role in advancing the common good and, two, subsidiarity requires larger bodies to assist smaller bodies. Both points are, in fact, true. The second point is especially important because the concept of support is central to subsidiarity. CST requires higher-order bodies to “adopt attitudes of help” toward small communities. Subsidiarity is described as “institutional or juridical assistance offered to lesser social entities.” So without an appreciation for subsidiarity’s full meaning, one could reason (as some conservatives today have) that it is necessary to create a muscular central state that distributes money, provides expansive social services, and narrows and homogenizes civil society in order to advance the government’s vision.
But subsidiarity rejects that understanding in several ways. First, since each entity has protected duties and powers, interventions are only warranted when a community is in need and unable to meet its responsibilities. The government is not given license to adventure into others’ spheres. Across CST’s statements about subsidiarity, need is emphasized. Second, support must come initially and primarily from entities close to the community struggling. If an individual cannot fulfill her duties, the family, neighbors, and local nonprofits must help; if the local nonprofit community is in need, philanthropists or local governments should be first to the scene. Caritas in Veritate describes subsidiarity as “first and foremost a form of assistance to the human person via the autonomy of intermediate bodies,” not assistance from the central government.
Third, support cannot weaken the needy entity and cannot take the form of doing another’s job in perpetuity. Support must always be designed to strengthen the struggling individual or community so they again take up the responsibilities associated with their role in society. Subsidiarity calls for higher-level bodies to “help individuals and intermediate groups to fulfill their duties.” It prohibits action that would lead to smaller associations being absorbed or displaced. Benedict wrote that “assistance is offered when individuals or groups are unable to accomplish something on their own, and it is always designed to achieve their emancipation, because it fosters freedom and participation through assumption of responsibility.”
Even in instances when some member of society is completely incapacitated, subsidiarity explicitly limits state action. In such “exceptional circumstances,” governments are permitted to act in a “substitute” role by taking over others’ obligations. But that intervention must be temporary. John Paul II wrote that it “must be as brief as possible, so as to avoid removing permanently from society and business systems the functions which are properly theirs, and so as to avoid enlarging excessively the sphere of State intervention to the detriment of both economic and civil freedom.” Similarly, CST describes circumstances like a severe recession when “it is necessary for the State itself to stimulate the economy because it is impossible for civil society to support initiatives on its own.” But here too, however, “In light of the principle of subsidiarity, . . . this institutional substitution must not continue any longer than is absolutely necessary, since justification for such intervention is found only in the exceptional nature of the situation.”
In total, then, we can see that, in CST, invocations of the common good don’t necessarily justify bold central-state action. Instead, they demand our respecting the spheres of different social bodies; our expectation that each will fulfill its duties; and our understanding that support must follow need, must be short-term, and must be designed to get struggling bodies back on their feet. As I describe in a recent essay in National Affairs, subsidiarity doesn’t tell the central state that it can’t act. But it does outline six rules of thumb for when and how the state should act. I describe these as responsive, targeted, proximate, limited, rehabilitative, and temporary.
Modern Catholic social doctrine is unquestionably committed to the common good. But its earliest statements and subsequent articulations repeatedly grapple with the hard-learned lesson that consolidated power often threatens instead of advances the common good. Despite some conservatives’ attempts to justify bold state action in the name of the common good, subsidiarity remains an indispensable guide.